Contextual utility affects the perceived quality of explanations

Nadya Vasilyeva, Daniel Wilkenfeld, Tania Lombrozo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Are explanations of different kinds (formal, mechanistic, teleological) judged differently depending on their contextual utility, defined as the extent to which they support the kinds of inferences required for a given task? We report three studies demonstrating that the perceived “goodness” of an explanation depends on the evaluator’s current task: Explanations receive a relative boost when they support task-relevant inferences, even when all three explanation types are warranted. For example, mechanistic explanations receive higher ratings when participants anticipate making further inferences on the basis of proximate causes than when they anticipate making further inferences on the basis of category membership or functions. These findings shed light on the functions of explanation and support pragmatic and pluralist approaches to explanation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1436-1450
Number of pages15
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 1 2017
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


  • Context
  • Explanation
  • Inductive utility
  • Inference
  • Pragmatic factors


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